Upfitting trends

From the April 2021 print edition

We’ve been tracking the trends in the world of upfitting. Some of these follow the social trends of the customers they serve, while of course, others are the result of the advances in technology and hardware provided to them by the OEM truck builders. But before we get into the nuts and bolts, we have to deal with an unanticipated trend that is affecting all the players right now – builders and customers alike. Of course, it’s the pandemic.

The quick and dirty (and obvious) is that disturbed supply lines have created delays in builds and deliveries. However, a secondary cause is the hesitancy of ordering by industries trying to deal with the real-time fallout of lockdowns.

Curiously, most every business has viewed the year-old pandemic as a sales killing event; but for some, surprisingly, it actually increased sales dramatically. These companies are the ones that suddenly needed new vehicles and replacement ones ASAP. That’s where the problems started as the normal rhythms of this industry were upset.

While this is not really breaking news, it does continue to affect many industries as lead times draw out and ship-thru dates come and go – vanishing into a black hole of parts shortages. Rest assured that OEMs and upfitters are working hard to meet demand – but for the foreseeable future keep in mind that lead-times will need to be elastic.

Safety first
According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), work-related musculoskeletal disorders — awkward movements, heavy lifting, and repetitive strain — account for 34 per cent of lost workdays. A heightened awareness of the true costs associated with injuries is driving fleet managers to equip vehicles with equipment and systems that will better safeguard operators.

This trend pays dividends in costs and productivity – so it’s here to stay and will be improved upon perennially. But what are we actually talking about?

To start with, OEM builders continue to provide additional safety features in vehicles as standard equipment. Upfitters then take that as a starting point to add their own improvements. These include rear-view camera systems; parking sensors (front and rear); standard back-up beepers; improved grab handles (inside and out); improved mirrors; easy opening doors and improved access steps. These are just the basics. Specialized equipment can be expected to get specialized safety features.

Upfit designs are being reviewed with a critical eye to determine if equipment add-ons get in the way of the driver or crew. Can they be moved? Should they be? This new attitude leans toward the upfit being moved, rather than the old thinking that expected people to just learn to work around them. The safety benefits are obvious.

Safety is also an exercise in knowing what works and what doesn’t – there has to be a way to measure success – hence the growth in telematics. You have to have data to determine how new designs are working, so more and more companies are ordering upfitted vehicles with systems that monitor driver and vehicle performance. This gives insights into fuel costs, possible causes of frequent repairs, effectiveness of equipment in terms of time spent using them and also identifying potential liabilities for the company. These data are also a proactive indicator identifying possible problem areas so companies can react and better train operators.

Going green
You can’t talk about new trends without talking about “going green.” At first glance most think of going green as the trend towards electric service and delivery vehicles. Sure, that’s part of it – but just part. There is also a more subtle subtext to “green.” What we’ve seen is owners want to do more with less (meaning smaller vehicles) and they want it all to weigh less, too. This is also green.

This trend lowers costs on conventional ICE-powered trucks. And, while electric is exciting, fleet managers know that costs drive innovation – and sometimes the expensive ones stop them dead.
With that in mind, we can look at the CNG and propane systems that have been around for while now. These too were considered experimental in their time – yet have proven themselves to be economical in many applications.

In the same way electric is now on the cusp of moving from futuristic to a solid economic choice.
Past propulsion though, buyers are increasingly looking at van bodies rather than pickup trucks. Some of these lower weights, while inside the use of modern plastics in the upfitter add-ons also trims weight. This trend from upfitters using more plastic composites and aluminum have far reaching benefits.

This lighter equipment eases the burden on the engine, increasing fuel economy. This increases engine life, with less time and money going to repairs. The result is better use of space, as lower weight equals reduced driver stress and overall costs.

New vehicle preferences
As stated above, there is a noticeable shift in preference toward commercial vans. It can be argued that the new European-influenced vans have opened up this market. However, acceptance across a variety of industries is what is really driving this trend. While pricing, again, is important, a few other inherent benefits of these vans have no doubt influenced fleet buyers.

First, an enclosed, covered work area is an operator benefit; also, clear, standing room is now a normal part of this type of vehicle. The large, tall, square body also offers a limitless number
of upfit configurations that help increase productivity.

However, this new vehicle trend applies to more than just vans. Sales figures suggest that companies are looking to reduce the overall size of their equipment wherever they can. In part this is possible by innovations from upfitters – providing the same equipment in smaller packages that weigh less. This in turn requires a smaller base truck that costs less – and costs less to run.

While we can argue that doing more with less has always been a plank in any business plan, the expanding base vehicles choices – and the imagination of the upfitting industry is offering an unprecedented increase in new build options. This benefits us all.